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McCain tour seeks to put more states in play

  • Story Highlights
  • Sen. McCain launches a week-long tour of poverty-stricken areas of the nation
  • McCain's visits a struggling steel town in Ohio Tuesday
  • The likely intended audience is white, mostly-moderate independent voters
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By Rebecca Sinderbrand
CNN Associate Political Editor
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(CNN) -- Sen. John McCain launched his week-long journey to poverty-stricken areas of the nation Monday with language that would have been at home in any Democratic stump speech.

And it came at a location -- the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama -- that is inextricably identified with a top congressional Democrat, Georgia Rep. John Lewis.

"I've seen courage in action on many occasions in my life, but none any greater or used for any better purpose than the courage shown by John Lewis and the good people who marched for justice with him," said McCain.

Lewis was badly beaten as he and hundreds of civil rights marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers as they crossed the bridge on a march to the state capitol in Montgomery. Video Watch more of McCain's stop in Selma »

McCain linked Lewis' struggle to the economic difficulties facing many Americans. "There must be no forgotten places in America, whether they have been ignored for long years by the sins of indifference and injustice, or have been left behind as the world grew smaller and more economically interdependent."

It is unlikely the presumptive Republican nominee directed this party-neutral appeal to the Alabama electorate, which generally supports GOP presidential candidates by large margins. And it's unlikely he was making his case to black Alabama voters, who generally vote Democratic. Video Watch as gospel singers greet McCain in Selma »

The likely intended audience is instead the nation's mostly white, mostly moderate independent voters who, according to polls, are less inclined than ever to vote for a typical GOP contender this year. So each of the forgotten places visited on this week's trip seems handpicked to reinforce one message: McCain is no typical Republican.

The Arizona senator will visit Democratic strongholds like New Orleans' hurricane-battered Lower 9th Ward, and other historically resonant locations like Inez, Kentucky, where President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty -- a campaign McCain's party has criticized for decades.

The approach isn't completely new. Eight years ago, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush ran as a compassionate conservative who was dedicated to issues and groups he said his party had neglected.

That's a tough comparison for McCain, who has tried to find a careful balance this year between his loyalty to President Bush, and attempts by Democrats to tie him to president's positions, which are deeply unpopular with many swing voters.

Another challenge: While McCain's foreign policy credentials have been central to his presidential bid, he has struggled to project the same image of authority on domestic issues.

His most unexpected dilemma is also the most pressing -- both his likely fall opponents, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are dominating most news cycles with their epic primary battle.

But their daily barrage has also presented McCain with precisely the opportunity he needs: As the Democratic race turns increasingly negative, their showings in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with the GOP senator have been depressed.

So this week's swing is just the latest in a long series of ambitious tours intended to push McCain back onto the front page in the months to come, and present a positive, presidential image that contrasts with the continuing Democratic brawl.

Over the next few months, McCain -- who began his general election bid with a biography tour designed to highlight his life story and his family's legacy of military service -- will be criss-crossing the nation on journeys centered around domestic issues like health care, education and the economy.

These stops have not all been selected with a purely national audience in mind. McCain's visit Tuesday to the heavily Democratic, struggling steel town of Youngstown, Ohio, say campaign aides, is meant to send a clear message to the region's blue-collar Reagan Democrats who share his stand on social issues, but might not be inclined to make the return journey on the ballot this year because of mounting economic anxiety.

He stressed the need for better unemployment insurance and job training programs, and pledging to help homeowners facing foreclosure.

"The challenge of America today is our economy, as you know, but probably the lingering and most severe part of that is anyone's ability to keep and afford healthcare," McCain said at the event. Video Watch more of McCain in Ohio »

Tuesday's Youngstown appearance also presents an opportunity for McCain to have local headlines to himself in a state that proved decisive in the 2004 election, as Democrats turn their focus to upcoming southern and Midwestern showdowns.

His campaign is betting that his hard-sell appeal to independent voters combined with his maverick image will help in states that are not normally realistic targets for a Republican White House hopeful.

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"With him [McCain] on the ballot, a lot of new states are up for grabs," says one staffer. "We're going to compete in places where Republicans have not been competitive. Democrats will be on the defensive in places they do not expect."

But staffers concede that contests in most of those fresh targets are long shots to win outright. The goal is not necessarily victory, they say -- it's to force Democrats to focus resources on areas they would not otherwise feel compelled to defend.

In a race where both of his likely opponents are setting fundraising records nearly every month, this kind of creative campaign warfare could be the key to McCain's White House chances. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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